The USDA is doing a public-relations campaign about food safety this month, and sent a Bay Area native -- now a Deputy Under Secretary -- to our offices to talk about e. coli.
I, however, wanted to talk about food irradiation.
The two topics are related. In July, the USDA finally denied a petition from the American Meat Institute Foundation to allow low-dose radiation without notifying customers on the label, as is currently required for irradiated foods.
The idea is to nuke potentially dangerous strains of e. coli and other pathogens on cattle carcasses with "safe" levels of radiation.
Brian Ronholm, USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety, said the reason the petition was denied wasn't that the USDA worries about radiation; rather, it worries about e. coli.
"Our concern was that because of the curves in the carcass, irradiation might not be fully effective," Ronholm said. "But it's not an issue we consider closed. We would certainly review it if we received a submission with a new process."
I would have liked to ask Ronholm about the government's campaign against raw milk, but the USDA is only responsible for meat, poultry and egg products. Everything else -- 80% of the food supply, Ronholm says -- falls under the jurisdiction of the FDA.
Ronholm is a Cal State Hayward grad made good; he enjoyed Korean beef barbecue with his mother and sister in Hayward on Tuesday night. He likes his beef medium-well and has never had steak tartare. When I asked him how I could most safely eat it, he said basically it's not possible.
This was news to me: USDA Prime, Choice, etc. -- that's all meaningless when it comes to safety. "That's more of a marketing thing," he said.
The USDA's big announcement this week is that the meat industry now has to test for six new strains of e. coli other than the infamous O-157. Ronholm said those six strains caused 112,000 illnesses last year, double the number of the one strain (O-157) previously tested for.
"These six strains that we announced this week, no one knew they existed 10 years ago," said Ronholm, who didn't know if they always existed and were never identified, or had evolved from other strains.
This should comfort you: when a sample of meat is found to be contaminated with any of these potential dangerous bacteria, it's "diverted for additional processing," Ronholm said. That means it's cooked to at least 165 degrees and then used in soup or other processed meat products. Swell!
Having recently spent nearly a week sick in bed with some sort of gut ailment, I would be remiss if I didn't pass along the USDA's four-word safety plan:
Clean, Separate, Cook and Chill
Clean means wash your counters, cooking surfaces and knives.
Separate means keep raw meat away from other foodstuffs (though vegetables are responsible for the great majority of food-borne illnesses, according to the CDC)
Cook means, OK, we know what cook means. Ronholm said buy a meat thermometer and heat your meat to 165 degrees. No steak tartare for you.
Chill means calm down about the fact that much of your food is irradiated already. It also means to keep meat and leftovers in the fridge.
But don't get too confident in the safety of your meat. The new requirement for testing for these six additional strains of e. coli doesn't take effect until March 5, 2012.